In the Asterix comics we are never told just what breed Obelix’s little dog Dogmatix is. In fact, he is specifically referred to as being an “undefined breed” in his first appearance in Asterix and the Banquet.
I’ve compiled four hypotheses:
- West Highland White Terrier: In the first two Asterix movies, the part of Dogmatix was played by a West Highland white terrier (a “Westie”). Of all the present-day dog breeds, westies look most like Dogmatix. There is one major hole in the westie hypothesis: it’s extremely unlikely that a Westie would be found in Gaul circa 50BC. That’s because the dogs didn’t exist back then.
- Melitan: A melitan was a breed of lapdog popular with Romans and Greeks in ancient times. They were small companion dogs, typically pampered things who existed solely to amuse their owners, typically noblewomen. “The Melitan was a small, fluffy, spitz-type dog, commonly white in colour… with a very appealing, pointed, fox-like muzzle.” In appearance, they sound nothing like Dogmatix. But the Melitan hypothesis is very strong for another reason: these small dogs actually existed as pets in 50BC. There’s no record of them amongst Gauls, however. We’d have to imagine that rowdy, warring Obelix came into possession of a small Roman lapdog during a raid.
- A Gallic war dog, a.k.a. Irish Wolfhound: What we call an Irish wolfhound is a very ancient breed of dog which Celts were known to use as guard dogs and in combat. Caesar is supposed to have mentioned them in his Commentaries on the Gallic War, though I couldn’t find the reference. This is the only breed of dog which we might realistically find in a Gaulish village in 50BC, which makes it a good hypothesis for Dogmatix. The obvious flaw: wolfhounds are huge. Maybe Dogmatix could be a wolfhound, but he’d have to be an anemic, albino, malformed runt of a wolfhound. He is known to accompany Obelix on raids and bite Romans.
- Schnauzer: The last hypothesis: Dogmatix could be a schnauzer. This is unlikely for so many reasons: (1) schnauzers didn’t exist in 50BC; (2) they aren’t native to Gaul/France; (3) they look nothing like Dogmatix except, except, except that schnauzers have whiskers that perhaps vaguely resemble Dogmatix’s unusual moustache.
Which breed does Dogmatix belong to…?
Our goal is to determine which of these four breeds Dogmatix belongs to. First, we need some data, then we need a method for decision making.
A delicious hoax was recently perpetrated on the highbrow literary community. It really was the tasty cake. Sometime in 2002, Arnold Harvey invented an 1862 meeting between Charles Dickens & Fyodor Dostoyevsky and had ‘evidence’ of the meeting published in a respectable literary journal. In 2011 his fabrication was briefly taken as fact and appeared in at least two Dickens biographies and numerous book reviews.
Part of Mr. Harvey’s genius was his sly reverse psychology. The meeting is mentioned in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact way towards the end of a utterly commonplace piece of scholarly boffinhood titled Dickens’s Villains: A Confession and a Suggestion. The author of the article, a pseudonymous “Stephanie Harvey,” quotes a letter from Dostoyevsky which she supposedly translated from Russian. In the letter, Dostoyevsky recalls his meeting with Dickens sixteen years after the fact. Mr/Ms. Harvey’s article appeared in vol. 98 of the literary journal the Dickensian, where it went unremarked-upon for almost ten years before biographer Claire Tomalin discovered it. She found the anecdote so “irresistable” that she put it in her tome Charles Dickens: a Life. From there the “remarkable” encounter wound up in the opening paragraph of the NYT’s review, various other reviews and biographies (including Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing), and will probably continue to be recounted as fact forever in the endless echo chamber of the Interwebs. (For the interested reader, the Times Literary Supplement contains a lengthy investigation and a speculation that Mr. Harvey is some sort of rogue scholar-vigilante).
The tantalising prospect of such a meeting seems to have intoxicated many otherwise sober critics. Nobody asked the practical questions like, what language did they communicate in? Or, had Dickens ever even heard of Dostoyevsky? The London Review of Books wrote that Ms. Tomalin “might have been less susceptible had she not so badly wanted it to be true.” And we want it to be true, too! Sadly, absent a time machine, there’s no way to make it so. But we can do the next best thing: we can train machines with the words of these two authors and then set those machines to chatting with one-another.
- FYODOR: “This hatred for Russia has been already embodied in the narrative as it stands so far and the other my own .”
- CHARLES: “We know what Russia means sir says Podsnap we know what England is.”
- FYODOR: “You thirsted while in Switzerland for your home country for Russia you read doubtless many books about Russia .”
- CHARLES: “Although I saw him every day it was for some time longer to settle myself for the present in Switzerland .”
- FYODOR: “It was a recollection of Switzerland .”
- CHARLES: “I tingle again from head to foot as my recollection turns that corner and my pen shakes in my hand .”
- FYODOR: “But I had supposed that laying aside my pen and saying farewell to my readers I should be heard …”
- CHARLES: “Upon my life the whole social system as the men call it when they make speeches in Parliament is a system of Prince ‘s nails !”
- FYODOR: “Why in the English Parliament a Member got up last week and speaking about the Nihilists asked the Ministry whether it was not high time to intervene to educate this barbarous people .”
- CHARLES: “Do n’t you know that people die there ?”
- FYODOR: “But excuse me I ‘ll make merry till I die !”
Isn’t this conversation just what we’d expected?! It’s lively, and moves quickly from Mother Russia to writing to English politics to colonialism… And what strikes me is how the character of the two authors is present in their words. Dostoyevsky’s brooding existentialism, Dickens’ concern with social justice. Their words could have come straight from their books… Because they did: this conversation was automatically generated from the two author’s oeuvres.
So I got interested in ‘digital humanities’ and I wanted to try out some of their procedures for doing literary criticism with computers. One basic problem they have is how to classify texts so that, firstly, they can be searched for and found (this is the librarian’s problem), but also so that they can be grouped according to content or genre and compared with one another (a literary critic’s job). And I realised that the internet is itself a vast text classification and retrieval problem on a scale comparable to the Borgesian infinite library. The Dewey decimal system is simply not going to cut it. I learned that even as I submit these words to this blog, search engine webcrawlers are sucking them all up and throwing them into vast term-document matrices, which they use to match my words to search phrases by calculating cosine similarities and other mathematical measures of correspondence.
How to do things with words with machines 1. Awesome geek stuff! The problem I’ve made up for today: train a machine to classify a book into one of three literary genres: Seafaring, Gothic Horror or Western.